The Tale of an Irritable Teen
At 16, I was clueless, no self- image to speak of. I was painfully insecure. My face resembled a Campbell Soup kid, I had stork-legs, Charles Atlas kicked sand in my face, pimples were the Bubonic plague, and I didn’t know whether to part my hair right or left. My sense of self was amorphous and on training-wheels; I was a mess, but I liked girls, no, I loved girls. They were everything. They were my reason for being. ‘A prisoner of love,’ I was consumed by ‘chicks,’ and I somehow believed they would be my ticket to self-discovery. No, I didn’t articulate that at the time, but it coursed through my veins nonetheless. Dating was sailing the high seas of passion looking for the new world, and I approached it panting and slobbering like Mickey for Minnie. Undaunted and focused like a laser beam, I was a man (well, sort of) on a mission. Below is how it went down.
A description of the dating juggernaut always begins with finding a girl you perceive attractive. That’s the first step. At PHS the menu of pretty girls was rich, and I set my sights fairly high, thus ratcheting up the amount of rejection I was certain to receive. Self-defeating behavior was no stranger to an insecure 16 year old; behaving in ways that confirmed my loser-self seemed to come natural. It’s a vicious cycle. But where ‘pretty’ was irresistible, not-so-pretty was easy to avoid. (It was all so subjective). One doesn’t need ego strength to notice pretty is better than its counterpart. Claiming an eye-catching girl as my date would suggest I had something attractive I could believe in.
Sadly, it was never about how appealing I was; it was about the attractive girl, who in a losing moment of despair, decided to go out with me. It was that sort of good fortune I believed in. I externalized my feelings of worth on the sexy babe I was with. I was somebody because I thought she was; she was my cover. For days I fervently exercised my courage, rehearsing my lines, figuring my approach, practicing imagined conversations, all combined to convince the alluring Date-darling to take a chance on me. If I could find a cute honey on her off-day, when she was feeling down, possibly rejected by her flame, perhaps a night out with me might be better than moping around the house with her parents. My desperation looked on the bright side.
I would wait until Thursday or Friday to call a particular girl for a Saturday night fling. I’d call late in the week for a couple of reasons. If they said no because they were already going out, then I didn’t feel so bad; I called late, what did I expect? I formerly called early in the week, out of respect, but I quickly learned the early ‘no’s’ were likely they were hedging their bets; if they held out, they might get a better offer. Calling Thursday or Friday meant they were either faced with staying home with their parents, on a Saturday night, feeling bummed no one else asked them out, or they could get out of the house, perhaps see a great movie, with me. In either case, feeling bummed was their reward. However, I figured there were plenty of things worse than a date with a guy who possessed a debonair mug of a cartoon on a soup can. A nasty case of diarrhea or head injuries were two that came to mind. Keeping things in perspective was how I defended the blows life threw at me; I had plenty of shit to deal with. On top of the aforementioned loathing physical attributes, my voice cracked a lot, at unwelcome times, betraying my newly found sultry tones of manliness. The sum of my parts didn’t amount to much, there was nothing gestalt about my sorry self-view. I WAS the sum of my parts, and that was the problem.
I would pick-up the phone, then hang-up as the knees of my courage buckled. I did this several times. In a burst of bravado, I would dial, and hold my breath as it rang…the conversation went something like this: “Ah, is Linda (imaginary name to protect the innocent) there? Oh, Linda, this is Greg Prout. G-R-E-G P-R-O-U-T. Yes, I go to school with you; you sit next to me in English. We’ve gone to school together for ten years, for Pete sake, remember? Greg Prout, yes. I’m glad you know who this is, me too…Ah, how are you? Um, what are you doing, I mean, what are you doing Saturday night? I know this is kind of late, ah, um, I probably should have called sooner than Thursday night, but ah, ah, I was wondering if you would mind doing me a favor, (pause) would you (deep breath) go out with me this Saturday night? Yeah, me.” The quiet that ensued was tyrannical. I thought she was either throwing up, or checking with her parents. (More pause). “Hello, hi…this is Greg. Yes, I knew you knew that. You can! Great, um, I’ll pick you up at 7 pm. I better go. Thanks. Good-bye.” Yahoo.
Getting ready was critical. There was a check list, like a formula for making a bomb, ignoring it was perilous. For several years I watched my brother exercise this list, like preening a pedigree dog for a national show. The right amount of hair gel, the hair coiffed meticulously, thorough facial treatment the night before thwarting any appearance of pimples, (make-up considered), teeth scrubbed and rinsed with Listerine, (Sen-Sen in pocket). The long shower, checking your nose, cleaning your ears, applying ample underarm protection, a splash of English Leather were some of the rituals, as were shoes shined, shirts laundered with light starch on hangers, car washed, vacuumed, gassed. These fundamental externals were necessary props for the big event. All were pre-date sacraments, performed religiously with holy vigor, with one goal in mind: to bedazzle her with your good looks that she, unable to control herself, would, with mindless passion, make out with you. In my case, I hoped she was so hard up she’d kiss anyone, a frog, even me.
Hell, that was the whole purpose of dating, as far as I was concerned: to make out, and if you were lucky, more. If you came home with only a kiss–at-the-door, there were two reasons: either you flopped, or you were laying the ground work, building trust, for a future date. I often claimed the last reason to cover-up the real reason: the first one.
Dating was calculating: everything, every move had purpose. The game plan never failed to include the anticipated ‘make-out’ session. The prep and execution focused solely on that one goal: sex, any kind, anywhere, any amount. Dating as a format for forging friendships with the opposite sex was never on my agenda; if that happened, and it did, fine, but the affair was about my needs. I craved girls like an addict out of drugs, and it was what they could do for me, to me that drove me wild. I was a curious blend of fledgling self-image possessed and twisted by a wrenching gut-level hankering for hardcore romance. High school was a super market for girls, period. Everything else mattered little.
On ‘date night,’ there was no escaping the pre-date jitters, they were fierce. I feared I’d receive a last minute phone call from her chickening-out; so I’d hurry to dash out the door, as if that would prevent such a tragedy. On the way to her house, I wondered if I would I have to hassle meeting her parents. Would they be cool or icy? I generally dreaded meeting parents, because I knew they were sizing me up, scrutinizing my every look and word, trying to discover my devious intentions behind the polished look. So, like Eddie Haskell, I rehearsed encounters: “Hello, Mr. and Mrs. So-and-So, how nice to meet you,” “What a lovely home you have,” and, “Yes, I enjoy school; hope to be a doctor or lawyer, maybe even a preacher someday. What time would you like your daughter home?” A deliberate effort to thwart their probing questions and suspicious stares, but it was such pellucid bullshit; it might explain the worried looks on their faces as we left. Getting over the parent hurdle was a necessary step in winning the coveted prize: romantically mauling their daughter in the seat of my car. They had every reason to be concerned.
My Date looked ravishing when she got into my front seat. Her parents, it just so happened, were at dinner, one less obstacle. My first inclination was to back out of her driveway, abruptly yank the car to the curb, and make out. But I didn’t have the confidence to pull off such an absurd maneuver. I wasn’t a complete idiot; however, my lurid sexual fantasies were never away, coaxing me, pushing me to the brink of hazardous behavior. Anyway, I suspected making out with me was the last thing on her mind. The fear of it was closer to the truth. (Heck, I wasn’t even convinced she was delighted to see me, especially if I was the ‘last chance date’). Nevertheless, my make-out obsession consisted of a hungering urge to go as far as I could, and the mystery of not knowing how far I could go before it got ugly. This was the tightrope I perpetually walked.
Meanwhile, if it wasn’t for ‘playing a role,’ I never would have made it. So much energy was invested in dawning different disguises: Mr. Tough Guy, Mr. Aloof, Mr. Thoughtful, Mr. Witty and Clever, Mr. Suave, or maybe Mr. Eclectic, combining the best of all of them. The surfeit of different personas exhausted me, trying to find one that worked. The artificial role-playing however gave me a refuge to hide behind while I searched for the Me that felt good. It was a variety show and I was the star. I figured I would, with crazed mind, get to make out, with an additional perk leading to an integrated self; however that realization eluded me at the time.
Some roles I obviously couldn’t play: the Athlete, the Rich Kid were out, and so was the Tough Guy. Minimally, I acquired hints and clues as I practiced these various forms of social deception. Awkwardness was often the result. Somewhere in this exercise was the real me. Determined, I persisted experimenting with attitudes, fashions, styles, pick-up lines, perceptions, anything to find my place. Should I swagger like John Wayne, talk like an anguished James Dean, cock my head a certain way, smoke cigarettes, curse a lot, or occasionally scream “Stella” like Marlon Brando in a tight-fitting wife-beater tee-shirt? How to get their attention? How to act, speak, stand, and walk all consumed my thinking. Not knowing myself left the field wide open. Life was a tacit, frantic deep-seated need to survive, get by, and of course, make-out.
Then there was the conversational side of the date, which made the initial phone call seem like a picnic. Talking was the stuff that made or crushed the whole evening, often another ode to self-torture. Early dating found conversation a daunting obstacle. You could dress GQ, but if you couldn’t talk you were dead on arrival. If conversation flowed glibly, generally the encounter went well. If words failed you, and your conversation choked, your nervous mind in lock down, then agonizing quiet sat with you in your car, like a bullfighter sticking peccadilloes in you.
I hated silence. Silence exposed me, stripped away my masks and left me feeling transparent, role-less, unprotected. The palpable hush uncovered my pitiful self without any language to shield me. If I was speechless, I just knew she would figure me out, sickened and disgusted, she’d quit the date. Just sitting there without the free-flow of conversation was not pretty. I was naked for all to see. Silence was not my friend, and in those defining moments of awkwardness, the agonizing hush made my heartbeat pound in my stomach, while creating copious amounts of gas in my lower intestines. Critical mass was approaching.
Finding the words to smoothly navigate the evening often eluded me, leaving me panicked and frustrated. Uninvited sounds would emerge from the tumble and gurgle of my bowels as they expanded with anxiety. Experiencing a flatulence episode wasn’t one of the roles I had considered, and one sudden careless move could unleash an explosion so unbelievably awful, sending my date gagging while reaching for the window. I could drive what seemed like forever without saying a word, my mind frantically, inexplicably unable to churn out every day talk. I had to find a cure, meanwhile any moment my intestines might unleash a communication of their own. I was dying.
My feeble conversation would go something like this: “Did you have a nice day?” “Yes.” “What did you do?” “Not much.” “Yeah, me neither.” That was it. No clarification, no follow-up, nothing. She was little help. It was up to me. “Well, what would you like to do?” That question was almost as destructive as it was irritating. With the experience of one or two dates, I quickly learned you never ask that question. You should always have a plan and place to go, or something to do. (Another ‘to-do’ I must add to the pre-date preparation list). One more date-faux pas: “Where would you like to eat?” Quiet. The nagging silence should have alerted me to her plaintive thoughts of “O God, what have I gotten myself into?!” Clairvoyant I was not; I blundered on. Out of pity she would reply, “Oh I don’t know, you pick.” (If I knew I would not be asking her).
Talking is so simple now, but then, an ineluctable pain-in-the-ass. Meanwhile gas was doing a tumbling routine in my stomach, my bowels stretching into the next county, and my eyes about to explode from their sockets. I needed relief fast. Growling sounds were getting more frequent and louder, emitting embarrassing grumblings. I wanted to make sure she knew it was my stomach growling, and no other infinitely more humiliating sounds. So I’d say something corny like, “My stomach must be hungry.” I figured, at least I broke the silence and sent a message that I hadn’t farted. I would turn up the radio, believing the tunes would muffle the stomach outbursts. But then it was too loud, and she asked me a question, which I couldn’t hear. I’d lower the radio and ask, “What did you say?” She’d reply,” Could you turn the radio down?” “Oh, okay, sure.” Quiet. Things worsened.
My stick-shift skills were less than smooth in 1966. Much less. I had borrowed my brother-in-law’s 1965 Corvair, with four-on-the-floor. Frequently the car would pitch forward as I clumsily shifted gears. Pulling up to a stop sign on an incline was a special kind of terror. The dance between the foot on the clutch and hand manipulating the gear shift was difficult for a novice, who was supposed to be the slick Mr. Cool. Meanwhile gas is still expanding, pushing, pressing to make its debut. O God, stop this! But, because Life apparently found twisted humor in my unbounded torment, I found myself, with my luscious Date, stopped at a stop sign, behind another car, and on a steep incline! Lurching violently, we shook and shimmied through the stop sign, but the hair-extender she was wearing started to unravel. At the vicious shaking she grabbed her neck. Shit, this can’t be good. And my abdominal discomfort was beyond critical at this point. Another sudden motion and a detonation would mushroom from dreaded nether regions. My brother never warned me about this and it was not on the pre-date preparation list. I could not imagine James Dean in this predicament. Simultaneously, I could hear Elvis singing ‘I’m All Shook up.’ Panic gripped me, I would never be able to attend school again if word got out I was the Fart Guy, a life-ending role.
Fortunately, there was a gas station, life’s pun, to the right. I pulled in, excused myself, and proceeded to the rest room where I expelled huge amounts of bloated misery in a fury of lingering, ear-splitting flatulence. The gas station rocked on its foundation. Somebody yelled, “Earthquake!” I continued my exercise. The thought occurred to me: I better get more than a kiss-at-the-door. She has no idea what I have sacrificed, the pain I’m enduring, and what I risked for this date, (and I had no idea she was considering her escape). More mind-boggling loud expulsions. When will it end? I’m getting weak. I can’t stay in here much longer; she will think I was doing more than taking a leak, a frightful image. Finally relieved, I took a deep breath, combed my hair, checked for possible new zits, threw a kiss or two at the mirror, and returned to the dating miracle. I put the car in first, and bounced out of the gas station. Her hair-extender landed on the floor.
I decided the drive-in was our destination. If you wanted to hone your love techniques the drive-in was the place, the Hastings Ranch Drive-in. I procured a pint of sloe-gin and slipped it into my glove box, believing alcohol would loosen her up, (and me), and hopefully create a happy ending to our Romeo and Juliet experience; at minimum, generate conversation. But she thought the booze was to get her drunk so I could learn sex. Was I that transparent? Who told her that? Had she learned this on previous dates? Were other guys just as scheming and sex-crazed as I? The thought of an affirmative answer encouraged me, I was not alone, and there were other fellas possibly like me, (conniving, clueless, self-centered, etc.). I felt comfort thinking I might belong to a community of fellow sufferers enduring this dating odyssey. A bit of extrapolation perchance, but it reassured my need to belong. I was understood; ‘one of the guys.’ I was ‘in.’
She would drink little, if any, and I would end up drinking too much. Now I was loose, giddy, stupid, saying and doing things that made her wish she had diarrhea, or perhaps that head injury. Of course, liquored up, I would think she wanted me and proceed to crawl all over her in an attempt to demonstrate my sexual graces. How wrong I was. If she thought she didn’t really want to be with me to begin with, now she was certain. She longed to be home with her parents, bored, depressed, schizophrenic, facing a death sentence; anywhere, doing anything, just far from me.
By the time the movie was over, she looked like she crawled out of a washing machine after the rinse cycle. A blind person had nothing on me in reading with his hands. There was not anything like sexual pleasure. Early in life I discovered sex is why the earth spins on its axis, and why being a human being was so out-of-this-world. It was my raison d’être for being here on the planet, and girls the exquisite ride.
However, shortly after this wondrous display of my sexual wrestling skills, abruptly she mentioned she had to be home, which meant: “Get me the hell out of here!” (Nowadays, a dating neophyte as I would be serving time for such behavior). Suddenly the quest came to a screeching halt. I climbed into the driving position and delivered her home, hardly saying a word, but of course thought we’d park in front of her house for a few more quick minutes of tender intimacy. No way, she was done. Exhausted, she bolted out the door, giving me a half-assed good night gesture with her middle finger. I quickly yelled, “Shall I call you Thursday night?” She was gone.
“Oh well, time heals all wounds. At least I didn’t fart,” I thought reassuringly. Though my efforts to build a foundation of trust were far from reality, at least I got to make out. Shrugging my shoulders I put the car in gear and jerked down the street.
Alone in the car, I again sensed that obnoxious silence sitting next to me. My thoughts of the evening were a muddled mess, confused, agitated; what just happened? I don’t think she will date me again unless she’s armed. What could I have done differently? Jealous, I wondered, (hoping it wasn’t so), did the guys on her previous dates have more success? If so, what was their magic? Perhaps I figured, she needed more sloe-gin? That would’ve helped. Never occurred to me that love wrestling might have been the reason the evening ended ugly, and that my fear of rejection had been realized by behavior that guaranteed it. Whoever I was, it didn’t feel good. I felt empty. Mr. Cool I wasn’t. Mr. Romance failed me. Perhaps being Mr. Thoughtful and Sensitive would have helped? Oh well… What next? Who is next? What role, when?
“Let’s see,” (talking to myself), “What about Carrie Anne? Nice chest. Clementine? I love her long legs and those bedroom eyes. Maybe Angeline? No, she’s going with somebody, or possibly Bernadette? She’s fine, Ms. Viewfinder. Anna? Love her brown skin, and that smile. Billie Jean perhaps? Man, do her sexy blue eyes and shapely body get to me. Brandy? Yeah, Brandy’s been looking really good lately, and what a figure! She’s been very friendly; easy to talk to, I like that. Can’t wait ‘til Thursday night to give her a call. Wonder if I can talk my brother-in-law into lending me his car again? Next time I will do a better job mapping out the date, avoiding stop signs on hills.” Such were my adolescent thoughts that unforgettable night.
Finesse, thoughtfulness, self-denial would all come in time. I would learn to be a gentleman, to converse with ease, to know where I was going, what I was going to do, to understand limits, and most importantly, who I was. And sex would never lose its bewitching powers.
Meanwhile, I turned the radio on and cranked up the volume. The Beatles were singing, “I’m a loser, and I am not what I appear to be…I’m a loser…” I opened the window, ripped a thunderous clap of flatulence, lightning flashed, and I jolted into the darkness.
By Greg Prout